As I warn in this interview, something similar could happen if the federal government convinces other nations to reject the dollar because they no longer want to acquiesce to the extraterritorial imposition of U.S. laws.
This is a wonky issue, but the bottom line is that the United States benefits enormously because the rest of the world uses the dollar.
The best article I can recommend was published earlier this year by the Cayman Financial Review. It’s a good tutorial on the issue and it explains why the United States enjoys an “exorbitant privilege” because the dollar is the world’s reserve currency.
A reserve currency is a currency that governments hold in their foreign exchange reserves to settle international claims and intervene in foreign exchange markets. …Governments overwhelmingly choose one currency – the U.S. dollar… U.S. dollar-denominated assets comprised 63.79 percent of disclosed foreign exchange reserves… The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) reported that 88 percent of all foreign exchange transactions in 2016 involve the U.S. dollar on one side. …In 2014, 51.9 percent of international trade by value and 49.4 percent of international trade by volume of transactions were invoiced in U.S. dollars. …Major internationally traded commodities such as oil are priced in U.S. dollars. …The status of the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency and the resulting foreign demand for U.S. dollars creates what French Finance Minister Valéry Giscard d’Estaing described in 1965 as an “exorbitant privilege” for the United States. …While difficult to measure, empirical studies suggest the privilege is worth about ½ percent of U.S. GDP (or roughly $100 billion) in a normal year.
And Peter Coy’s column for Bloomberg does a good job of explaining why the rest of the world is tempted to abandon the dollar.
America’s currency makes up two-thirds of international debt and a like share of global reserve holdings. Oil and gold are priced in dollars, not euros or yen. …threats to be cut off from the dollar-based global payments system strike terror into the likes of Iran, North Korea, and Russia. …Political leaders who once accepted the dollar’s hegemony, grudgingly or otherwise, are pushing back. …In March, China challenged the dollar’s dominance in the global energy markets with a yuan-denominated crude oil futures contract. …French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told reporters in August that he wants financing instruments that are “totally independent” of the U.S. …This disturbance in the force isn’t good news for the U.S. …As it is now, when trouble breaks out, investors flood into U.S. markets seeking refuge, oddly enough even when the U.S. itself is the source of the problem, as it was in last decade’s global financial crisis. …The most immediate risk to the dollar is that the U.S. will overplay its hand on financial sanctions, particularly those against Iran and countries that do business with Iran. …European leaders, in response to what they perceive as an infringement on their sovereignty, are openly working on a payments system that would enable their companies to do business with Iran without getting snagged by the U.S. Treasury Department and its powerful Office of Foreign Assets Control. …dissatisfaction with the dollar’s dominance…is only mounting. …Lew said in 2016, “the more we condition use of the dollar and our financial system on adherence to U.S. foreign policy, the more the risk of migration to other currencies and other financial systems in the medium term grows.”
Here’s some of what I said on the issue of sanctions in a different interview.
But notice that it’s not just sanctions.
Other nations also are irked by the pointless imposition of “know your customer” rules and other anti-money laundering policies that impose heavy costs without having any impact on actual criminal behavior.
Anyhow, let’s review some additional analysis, starting with this editorial from the Wall Street Journal.
More than any recent U.S. President, Mr. Trump is willing to use economic leverage for coercive diplomacy. He’s now targeting Turkey… Turkey is vulnerable because of Mr. Erdogan’s economic mismanagement. In the runup to June elections, he blew out the fisc on entitlements and public works. …As tempting as sanctions often are, they should be used sparingly and against the right targets. They make sense against genuine rogue states like Iran and North Korea, as well as to show Vladimir Putin that there are costs… But sanctions against allies should be used only in rare cases. They would also be less risky if they weren’t piled on top of Mr. Trump’s tariff war. …If Mr. Trump is determined to use coercive economic diplomacy, including tariffs and sanctions, then the Treasury will have to be ready to deal with the collateral financial damage.
Writing for Real Money, Mike Norman is very worried.
The United States is increasingly using sanctions as a form of warfare. …It’s a form of soft warfare that targets a country’s economy and its ability to transact business and safeguard its financial wealth in today’s dollar-based economy. Do you know what the result of these sanctions will be? The dollar will get crushed. Something like 80% of all international transactions take place in dollars. The global financial system rests on a dollar architecture. That includes funds transfer, clearing, payments, etc. …How long do you think the rest of the world will operate under such a risk? A risk that at any moment if you fall out of favor with the fools in Washington your entire economy and lifeline to the world’s financial system can be shut down? That is too much risk. No country and no citizen wants that risk hanging over them.
Professor Barry Eichengreen expresses similar concerns in a column for Project Syndicate.
…the Trump administration is eroding the dollar’s global role. Having unilaterally reimposed sanctions on Iran, it is threatening to penalize companies doing business with the Islamic Republic by denying them access to US banks. The threat is serious because US banks are the main source of dollars used in cross-border transactions. …In response to the Trump administration’s stance, Germany, France, and Britain, together with Russia and China, have announced plans to circumvent the dollar, US banks, and US government scrutiny. …This doesn’t mean that foreign banks and companies will shun the dollar entirely. US financial markets are large and liquid and are likely to remain so. US banks operate globally. …But in an era of US unilateralism, they will want to hedge their bets. …there will be less reason for central banks to hold dollars in order to intervene in the foreign exchange market and stabilize the local currency against the greenback. …In threatening to punish Europe and China, Trump is, ironically, helping them to achieve their goals. Moreover, Trump is squandering US leverage.
And Michael Maharrey elaborates on the warning signs in a column for FEE.
…the U.S….weaponizes the U.S. dollar, using its economic dominance as both a carrot and a stick. …”enemies” can find themselves locked out of the global financial system, which the U.S. effectively controls using the dollar. …It utilizes the international payment system known as SWIFT…the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. …SWIFT and dollar dominance give the U.S. a great deal of leverage over other countries. …China, Russia, and Iran, have taken steps to limit their dependence on the dollar and have even been working to establish alternative payment systems. A growing number of central banks have been buying gold as a way to diversify their holdings away from the greenback. …even traditional U.S. allies have grown weary of American economic bullying. On Sept. 24, the E.U. announced its plans to create a special payment channel to circumvent U.S. economic sanctions… De-dollarization of the world economy would likely perpetuate a currency crisis in the United States, and it appears a movement to dethrone the dollar is gaining steam.
All of the above articles could be considered the bad news.
So I’ll share one small bit of good news from Coy’s column. The one thing that may save the dollar is that there aren’t any good alternatives.
The best thing the dollar has going for it is that its challengers are weak. The euro represents a monetary union… Italy’s recent woes are only the latest challenge to the euro zone’s durability. China is another pretender to the throne. But China’s undemocratic leadership is wary of the openness to global trade and capital flows that having a widely used currency requires.
I agree. Indeed, I wrote way back in 2010 and 2011 that the euro lost a lot of credibility when the European Central Bank surrendered its independence and took part in the bailouts of Europe’s welfare states.
So why jump from the dollar to the euro, especially since Europe will be convulsed by additional fiscal crises when the next recession occurs?
That being said, the moral of today’s column is that the crowd in Washington shouldn’t be undermining the attractiveness of the dollar. Here’s a chart to give you some idea of what’s been happening.
P.S. I want to close with a point about trade deficits. It turns out that being the world’s reserve currency requires a trade deficit. That was explained in the Cayman Financial Review column.
A significant part of the U.S. current account deficit and the U.S. trade deficit (whether measured as goods and services or as goods only) is attributable to the U.S. dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency. Even if every country in the world were to practice free trade and not to engage in any currency manipulation, the United States would still record persistent current account deficits so long as the U.S. dollar remains the world’s reserve currency.
Likewise, here’s the relevant portion from the Real Money column.
Since most of of the world’s commerce is denominated in dollars and because oil was priced in dollars, it necessitated that the rest of the world ran trade surpluses with the U.S. in order to get dollars. Therefore, our trade deficits were an expression of high demand for dollars, not vice-versa. …We never understood, or at least our policy makers never understood, that we had the better part of the deal. When the rest of the world labors for low wages to build finished goods that they send to us for our paper currency, that is a benefit to us, not a cost.
Last but not least, here are excerpts from Peter Coy’s column.
…for the U.S. to supply dollars to the rest of the world, it must run trade deficits. Trading partners stash the dollars they earn from exports in their reserve accounts instead of spending them on American goods and services. …the U.S. gets what amounts to a permanent, interest-free loan from the rest of the world when dollars are held outside the U.S. As Eichengreen points out, it costs only a few cents for the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing to produce a $100 bill, but other countries have to pony up $100 worth of actual goods and services to obtain one.
I share all these excerpts to reinforce my oft-made point that there is nothing wrong with a trade deficit. Not only does it represent a financial surplus (formerly known, and still often referred to, as a capital surplus), it also reflects the benefit the U.S. enjoys from having the dollar as a reserve currency.